BAGHDAD — Iraq closed another chapter on the Saddam Hussein era Wednesday when the United Nations Security Council lifted most of the sanctions that it had imposed after the late ex-dictator's invasion of Kuwait 20 years ago.
With Vice President Joe Biden serving as chairman, the council voted unanimously to lift restrictions aimed at stopping Iraq from acquiring nuclear, chemical and biological weapons. It also formally ended a notoriously mismanaged oil-for-food aid scheme that Saddam's regime had used to steal billions of dollars meant to help Iraqis survive the sanctions.
The moves were largely symbolic: Iraq is signatory to the main international nonproliferation treaties and its constitution bars it from acquiring weapons of mass destruction, while the oil-for-food program has been defunct for years.
But U.S. and Iraqi officials said the lifting of the sanctions is a powerful statement that Iraq is finally emerging from a post-Saddam era marked by sectarian war and political crisis.
"Iraq is on the cusp of something remarkable: a stable, self-reliant nation; a just, representative and accountable government; and a positive force for peace and stability in the region," Biden told the 15-nation council meeting at U.N. headquarters in New York.
At times the meeting seemed almost like a polite coming-out party for a new nation. With the U.S. holding the council's rotating chairmanship, Biden, who's the Obama administration's point man on Iraq, looked buoyant as he read out the votes. After each tally, the normally dour chamber filled with applause.
The vote came just days before Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki is expected to end a nine-month deadlock and form a new coalition government that includes all of Iraq's major factions. Violence is at its lowest levels since the 2003 U.S. invasion to topple Saddam, although Iraqis, and particularly a dwindling community of Christians, continue to be targeted for attacks based on their religious faith.
Iraqi officials said that Wednesday's decision marked "the beginning of the end" of a severe sanctions regime imposed under Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter.
"I'm personally very, very delighted," Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said afterward. "We are overwhelmed by this support, and I think this shows Iraq is coming back, truly, to its rightful place among the community of nations."
Even with a new government coming in, Iraqi officials acknowledge that they're a long way from concluding their obligations to Kuwait, the tiny, oil-rich neighbor that Saddam briefly occupied before being ousted by U.S.-led forces in the 1991 Gulf War.
Under the sanctions, 5 percent of Iraq's oil and gas revenue is set aside into a fund to compensate Kuwait for damages, including some $130 billion in lost oil production, of which about $25 billion remains to be paid.
Iraqi officials had asked the Security Council to extend U.N. protection for an additional year to an escrow account in New York that holds national oil and gas revenue and shields it from creditors. In a compromise, the council voted Wednesday to extend that immunity for six months, after which Iraq will regain control of its oil revenue but could be exposed to additional claims.
The council also officially closed the book on the infamously corrupt $60 billion oil-for-food program, in which more than 2,000 companies conspired with Saddam's regime to steal $1.8 billion, according to an investigation by former Federal Reserve Chairman Paul Volcker. About $700 million remains in the fund, most of which would be transferred into Iraq's escrow account in New York.
Some sanctions remain in effect until Iraq and Kuwait resolve other issues, including locating some 760 Iraqis and 350 Kuwaitis missing since the war and agreeing on disputed border areas and maritime access.
Resolving Kuwait's claims will be "on top of the agenda of the new government," Zebari said. Asked when that government would be announced, he said, "Very, very soon. It wouldn't be weeks. It would be days."
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